Amarone

I love traditional Amarones, those rich but dry, incense-, chocolate- and cherry-laden wonders. Unfortunately as more and more “Amarones” flood the market, the style of wines I love are becoming all too rare.

Amarone is – or should be – a very special wine. Up to the late 1990s, the grapes destined for Amarone production were picked a week or two before the regular harvest. These specially selected ripe, healthy bunches were taken to lofts located on windy hilltops, where they were spread on bamboo racks (or in crates), and left to dry naturally for from three to six months, depending upon the desires of the winemaker. The process of semi-drying the grapes before fermenting them (known as appassimento) is what makes distinguishes Amarone. The process creates wines that have body, fragrances and flavours that simply cannot be achieved from wines made with fresh grapes. The grapes that remained on the vine were harvested for use in the production of Valpolicella. Five years ago Amarone accounted for around 20% of the harvest. Today that figure has, by conservative estimates, doubled, and by realistic estimates tripled.

In 1999/2000 I tasted every commercially available Amarone. At that time there were some fifty-five producers making Amarone in commercial quantities. Today there are over 100 Amarone producers. In 1999/2000 only “the best” grapes (that is the ripest bunches) were used to make the wine. Today there are estates that produce only Amarone. In 1999/2000 most producers opted for a long, natural drying period. Today the trend is toward forced drying systems and shorter drying times. [One producer proudly displayed a sign in his fully automated, technically advanced drying centre that referred to his “Super Natural Drying System”. Supernatural, indeed!]

There is even a move underway to change the name of the semi-drying process, appassimento. Now the preferred terms seems to be sovramaturazione. The translation of this term is “over ripening”. Over ripening?! Why discard an accurate word for an inaccurate one? Well, the general consensus is that appassimento (often translated into English as shrivelling rather than semi-drying) has negative connotations. Mind boggling, isn’t it? Yes, Amarone producers have been reduced to looking for consumer-friendly words rather than concentrating on making fine wine. And tell me, please, I want to know, how is sovramaturzione more acceptable than appassimento? Great wines and great winemakers are not affected by market surveys. (Imagine what a marketing man would do to Chateau Lafite. No! No, it sounds too much like defeat. Negative image. Let’s call it Victory. Yeah, Chateau Victory! We can put a flag on the label! But I digress…)

Eight years ago, Amarone was still primarily a wine to be drunk outside of mealtimes, with friends and good conversation. Like Port. And like Port, the alcohol levels of these wines were high – between 15 and 17 percent by volume. Now, many producers are making Amarones that can be plunked down on the table at dinner time. To do this, they have had to reduce the alcohol level, make the wines less concentrated and produce a product that can be placed on the marker sooner in order to fill consumer demand. I can’t help thinking of Helen Rowland’s comment in her 1922 book A Guide to Men: “A husband is what is left of a lover, after the nerve has been extracted.” In my version the line goes: “These wines are what is left of an Amarone, after the character has been extracted.”

Unfortunately producers still expect to hang on to the high prices that original Amarone command. Buyer beware!

I was at a dinner a few months ago with a very nice American wine importer. He was raving about having found a “really good Amarone” that cost him under $6 a bottle. I was shocked. Amarone is a labor intensive product – hand picking is essential, the grapes must be checked frequently for rot and mold during the drying process, the wines must be allowed to mature in barrel for years. I asked myself how in the world a winemaker could make a wine he could sell for $6 a bottle and still make a profit? I then asked myself what the importer was going to charge his customers. With Amarones selling for $50 (and more) a bottle, I am willing to bet that he will triple the price at the very least. I tasted the wine he so proudly offered and it was indeed a decent six buck (or even 12 buck after mark-up) bottle of wine, but it was not the style of Amarone that made the wine’s reputation.

Dear wine lovers, I beg you, do not let this kind of silliness continue. If you want a nice, satisfying red to wash down dinner, choose from among the tens of thousands of wines that you can buy for under $20. Think about a Chianti, a nice Sicilian red or – hey! – how about a Valpolicella! If you want a wine to sip and enjoy with friends, a wine that will inspire you to think, a wine that has absolutely unique flavours and fragrances, chose an Amarone, a real one. Please do not be seduced by a generic name on a bottle.

Great Amarones continue to be made and they are worth a higher price. Hold out for the real thing.

Among my favourite Amarone producers are:
Begali, Bertani, Corte Sant’Alda, Novaia, Tenuta Sant’ Antonio, Viviani, Zenato
And then there is Dal Forno. He is in a category by himself.